[EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier published version of this article contained incorrect data from a pre-production version of the book. This has now been corrected.]
Several years ago, after I’d performed a pair of planetarium shows at Santa Monica College, several of the audience members and I retired to a local restaurant to prolong our evening of astronomical fellowship. The topic of conversation turned from the stars and planets to a round-robin discussion of movies—in general, what kind of movies everyone enjoyed, and, specifically, what we had seen lately. By the sheer fact that these people chose to spend their Friday evening attending planetarium presentations to learn more about the universe, they obviously enjoyed exercising their grey matter in their spare time. It was no surprise, then, that the movies this crowd chose to see also tended towards the intellectual.
Because of our seating arrangement, and the order of the topic’s progression, I would be the last to speak. Since I was the only person at the table with a Ph.D., there was an elevated air of expectation. What would he say? Would he reveal a little-known documentary? Perhaps a stimulating foreign film? Would he list one of the classics as his all-time most cherished movie? In retrospect, the collective disappointment to my less intellectual—and more “blue collar”—reply was astoundingly amusing. I simply said, “You know, I get enough intellectual stimulation at work, so when I go to the movies, I want to see things explode.”
Given my taste in movies, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that I’m quite a fan of many of today’s first-person-shooter video games. I’m a big fan of Doom, and all its incarnations, for example. So when Halo: Combat Evolved arrived on the scene—a video game that appeared on the surface to be a cross between Ringworld (one of the first science fiction books I ever read) and Aliens (my all-time favorite “shoot-’em-up” sci-fi movie), I was all over it.
In fact, the case has been made—on several Halo-related websites, for example, that there isn’t much about Halo’s plotline that is original. There are elements of numerous science fiction books, movies, classical mythology, and even biblical references. Halo is an amalgam of all of these. In fact, we can find allusions to the Alien movies when the game is barely underway: the Sergeant “motivating” the soldiers on the UNSC Cruiser, Pillar of Autumn, is remarkably similar to Sgt. Apone from Aliens, and if you look closely enough at the bulletin board behind the bridge on Pillar of Autumn, you can even make out a flyer for a missing cat named Jonesy. Whether or not the Halo games are the epitome of originality or not, who cares? Just as with my movies, I want my video games to be rampant escapism with an overdose of adrenaline. If I’m vicariously thrown into scenarios that just happen to be reminiscent of favorite sci-fi movies, and lots of things explode, then all the better!
While science fiction can be used to examine the human condition and to make social commentary—the original Star Trek , Starship Troopers, and even Battlestar Galactica v. 2.0 are excellent examples here—science fiction can also serve as unbridled escapism. The viewer or reader or game player—the participant—isn’t preoccupied with day-to-day problems if the story successfully transports him to distant worlds or future times. Of course, the participant has a role in this as well. It is the duty of the author to create a situation interesting enough to be worthy of the time invested in a visit, but it is incumbent upon the participant to be amenable to be taken on the journey. The term is “willing suspension of disbelief,” originally coined by Samuel Coleridge in 1817.
Fans of science fiction media willingly allow ourselves to believe that the Enterprise can transport people by converting them to energy and subsequently reconstructing them, that Galactica has artificial gravity, and that the Millennium Falcon can, in fact, make the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs. We accept a measure of unproven (faster-than-light travel), or even highly implausible (light sabers), science and technology if it’s interwoven with a ripping good yarn.
At the same time, if the science fiction work includes too many obvious technical gaffes—especially if they are easily circumvented and the story equally as entertaining if done accurately—the participant is “taken out” of the story, suspension of disbelief itself suspended, and the dramatic impact lessened or lost. With millions of computers in service today, coupled with the accessibility of the internet, we have an increasingly tech-savvy population: a population that largely appreciates technical accuracy in stories and who, more to the point, notices when things are amiss. To this end, Hollywood is increasingly using technical advisors in science fiction television and cinema to ensure that the science part of science fiction is depicted as accurately as possible and that the audience stays within the action.
If the universe, characters, or story is particularly compelling, one might choose to wander that universe of his or her own accord. The internet is full of bulletin boards where members compare and contrast the capabilities of the Viper Mark II with the Mark VIII, or debate whether or not you would take the blue pill or the red one. Of course, this is just a high-tech version of science fiction fellowship and escapism that has already existed at science fiction conventions for decades. Succinctly put, it can be fun to play in somebody else’s sandbox.
The Halo universe, detailed in the video games, novels, and upcoming movie, is a richly detailed one and lends itself well to such musings. An entire book could be written about the science and physics, both explicit and implied, within the Halo universe, but with only a little scientific knowledge we can have a lot of fun simply musing about a spinning ringed megastructure—suspended between a planet and its moon—that doubles as a research facility and a superweapon.